Saturday, February 21, 2009

Native speakers of a 'dead' language - a neat trick

Over at his Linlithgow Journal, Stephen is evoking the spirit of the Dead Parrot Sketch in the light of Unesco's startling declaration that, in spite of having several hundred speakers each, Cornish and Manx are both 'dead' languages. I can't quite work out how Stephen feels about this subject, and it seems neither can he! (And someone really ought to gently point out to him that Cornish is not a 'Gaelic' language.) But one of his commenters Matthew Huntbach gets to the crux of the issue, pointing out that the important thing is not how many people speak a language, but whether any of them are native speakers. He concedes the point that there are now native Cornish speakers who were brought up in the language by their parents, but says this doesn't count as it is not a 'natural' transmission - ie. whatever language these people are native speakers of, it isn't authentic Cornish.

Hmmm. In this world of mass immigration there must be plenty of native English speakers around who were taught the language in the home by non-native speakers - they perhaps have a different accent, but are they really speaking a language other than English? My assumption would be that the differences between natively-spoken modern Cornish and long-dead 'Cornish Classic' are not great enough to justify defining them as two separate languages. But even if they were, Unesco should still have noted that - whatever they choose to call it - Cornwall most certainly now has its own living language.

How to have your cake and eat it, Israeli-style

Further to my tweet about Israel earlier, it does seem extraordinary that Peres can call on the leader of the second-largest party to form a government on the strength of backing from small ultra-right parties, and yet Netanyahu can then immediately attempt to sideline those parties and instead bring Kadima into his coalition. Surely in these circumstances the nature of the coalition should be settled before the premiership? If Netanyahu feels it's so essential to form a centrist/centre-right coalition with the largest single party, he should surely be forced to accept the leader of that party has the stronger claim to hold the post of Prime Minister.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pan-unionist SNP budget facilitators

Pretty desperate stuff from Scottish Unionist, putting up anti-SNP quotes from the three main unionist parties and implying their similarity amounts to a burgeoning anti-nationalist alliance. Such an occurrence would of course be the stuff that dreams are made of in SU-land (Iain Gray as First Minster, Tavish Scott as his loyal deputy and Annabel Goldie as Minister for Pan-Union Integration and Harmony - the dream team). But, hang on a minute - wouldn't it be equally possible to find strikingly similar quotes from Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP all attacking the Tories for wanting to 'do nothing' about the recession? Does that mean we have a 'pan-centre-left alliance'? And then there's the fact that the SNP, Tories and Lib Dems are all in agreement in denouncing Labour's attempts to introduce compulsory ID cards and increase the period of detention without trial - is that a 'pan-libertarian alliance'?

In truth, there's nothing unusual about any of this. Any combination of three parties in Scotland can usually be relied upon to wholeheartedly agree with each other on one thing - they hate the fourth. But, to be the mischievous for a moment, there is of course one other thing the three unionist parties all agreed on recently - they all supported the SNP's budget!

Why Labour absolutely should be panicking about that 20 point deficit

I see Kezia has picked up on Jeff's post, and is taking comfort from the fact that Labour's twenty-point deficit in the latest Ipsos Mori poll is based only on those respondents who declared themselves certain to vote at the next election. I have to say I think they're both missing the crucial point. A quick look at Mori's figures reveals that, of the 1001 people questioned, 510 said they were certain to vote - that's roughly 51% of the total. The logic of basing the headline figures only on the responses of these people is an assumption that, broadly speaking, they are the only ones who will actually turn out to vote when it really comes down to it. The additional 22% who say they are more likely to vote than not are for the most part not, as Kezia imagines, 'undecideds' just waiting to be wooed by Labour, but are in fact 'will not votes'. In other words, they're just telling the pollsters what they feel they ought to say, rather than giving an accurate assessment of their likelihood to vote.

Is this a plausible assumption? Well, 51% is certainly much lower than turnout has ever been in a modern election, but then turnout fell an astonishing 12% between 1997 and 2001, so we certainly shouldn't completely rule it out. But if on the other hand Mori had included all those who said they were likely to vote, that would take you to 73%, which is improbably high compared to the 59% and 61% turnout rates recorded at the last two elections. Perhaps Mori should be looking at a compromise of including all those who rate themselves 8 or higher on the standard 1-10 likelihood to vote scale. But what they certainly shouldn't be doing is what Jeff and Kezia seem to want them to do, ie. include all respondents in the headline figure. Whatever else you might say about a projected turnout of 51%, it's certainly a lot more plausible than a default assumption of 100% participation in an election.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tavish doesn't do straight talking

Of course, the one thing we know about politicians of all parties is that they're unlikely to give you a straight answer to a straight question. But it does seem ironic that, of the four main Scottish party leaders, the one with the greatest tendency towards opacity represents the party which has always presented itself as being in the vanguard of a 'new kind of politics'.

Over at the Two Doctors blog, James is wondering aloud whether the Lib Dems are preparing the ground to do a deal with the SNP over a multi-option referendum about Scotland's constitutional future. If they were, it would seem like an eminently sensible tactical switch, given that all the indications from the opinions polls are that the Lib Dems' preferred option of greater devolved powers would win out over both independence and the status quo. Such an outcome would also, in my personal view, suit the SNP down to the ground, because the referendum result would not be a straight 'defeat for independence' but rather a victory for Scottish constitutional progress.

In the early days of Tavish Scott's leadership, there also seemed to be reason to suspect this was the direction he was travelling, as he gave his cryptic comment about "not being instinctively against" allowing the people of Scotland to decide their constitutional future. But this is where the problem with James' theory kicks in - because Scott then explicitly ruled out the possibility of supporting a multi-option referendum, while all the time refusing to clarify what his "not instinctively against" comment meant. So how do you give the Scottish people a say on independence, while having your own preferred option on the ballot paper, while not having a multi-option referendum? There is of course no reasonable answer to this, rather like there was no answer to the question "what are the Lib Dems getting in return for your support of the budget?", and Tavish's response was the same on both occasions - an attempt at a disarming smile followed by infuriating obfuscation.

My own best guess is that Tavish is hankering after a single-option referendum on his own preferred policy. He will explain that he is still not 'instinctively against' letting the people decide on independence, but it's not possible for practical reasons, or it's not the right question, or it's not the right time, blah, blah, blah. After all, this would be completely consistent with the Lib Dems' approach to a European referendum, when after being faced with calls for a vote on the constitutional treaty they instead proposed one on continued membership of the EU - on the grounds that this is the "real question people want a say on". The only problem being that opinion polls seem to show that the British people want to stay in the EU but without the constitutional treaty - so it seems rather more likely that the question people would like to answer was being substituted for the one the Lib Dems would much prefer them to answer.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Tavish is preparing the ground to follow a similar strategy - ignore his words, just read his obfuscation.

Mr Brown, tear this wall down

From a familiar source we hear a familiar scare about independence - that it would lead to passport controls being set up on the English border. I suppose we should be duly grateful that Scottish Unionist at least resisted the temptation to indulge in the usual hyperbole about 'families being torn apart, your auntie in Scarborough being made a foreigner'. I may surprise you here, because I'm actually going to concede he has a point. It does now look perfectly conceivable that an independent Scotland would have border controls, largely because of the London government's extraordinary and inexplicable decision to rip up the decades-old and highly successful Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland. If London is going to insist on checking the passports of travellers from Ireland, it seems inevitable that the same would apply to travellers from an independent Scotland.

But what's slightly bizarre is Scottish Unionist's claim that the Scottish public would find the erecting of border posts 'distasteful'. I dare say they would - but let's examine this more closely. The SNP expressly does not want or see the need for border posts, while the London government expressly does. Who, in such circumstances, are the people actually 'erecting the border posts' and who should the public's 'distaste' about the matter be logically directed towards?

As any 'personal development' trainer will tell you, the fundamental principle about life is that you can only affect what you do, not what anyone else does - and consequently you can only be held responsible for your own actions, not for anyone else's. Scottish Unionist's attempt to blame the SNP for this is rather analogous to someone who self-harms after the break-up of a relationship - and then tells their ex-partner it was his or her fault for walking out on them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Misleading headline figure?

Over at SNP Tactical Voting Jeff is cautioning his readers not to give too much credence to the latest UK-wide Mori poll placing the Tories a full twenty points ahead of Labour. He makes the observation that among the entire electorate the Tory lead is a mere seven points, and the dramatic headline figure is generated by only including those respondents who report they are 'certain' to vote at the next general election. In some ways he's got a point - different pollsters use different filters and weightings to arrive at their headline figures, so the numbers from different companies should never be treated as directly comparable.

Where I think Jeff is on slightly shakier ground is in implying that the Mori figures lack credibility on their own merit. After all, Mori apply the 'certain to vote' filter for a very good reason - it's because they feel on the basis of past evidence that it's the figure most likely to prove accurate. They may or may not be right about this (other pollsters apply a lower threshold of 'likely' or 'very likely' to vote) but they're certainly not doing it in an attempt to generate artificially dramatic results. For one thing, it wouldn't be in their own best interests do so - a polling company lives or dies largely by its reputation for accuracy.

Incidentally, to give another example of what a dramatic effect Mori's filter can have on the result, in the 'northern region' sub-sample the SNP are on a very healthy 10% of the vote among the entire electorate - but among those 'certain to vote' it falls to a pathetic 4%! Given the low numbers involved, I think we can probably put that discrepancy down to sampling issues.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dominic Lawson speaks words of love, tolerance and mutual respect

AM2 has helpfully provided a link to the latest hilariously un-self-aware Jock-bashing article from the London media. It's by Dominic Lawson, who finishes in priceless fashion by patting his own countrymen on the back for being so much nicer to us than we are to them. As a Scot, the experience of reading the article is rather like being repeatedly hit over the head with a shovel by a crazed man, and all the time he's screaming at you - "You've brought this on yourself! You're just not grateful enough to me for my tolerance!"

Time to mimic the new Sark Lark?

In the days when the Labour government was sceptical about House of Lords reform (now it's not sceptical, it's just sloooow), the late Lord Williams of Mostyn routinely did a sterling job of defending the indefensible. One of his favourite lines of argument was that in America all sorts of public officials - including judges but also even less probable office-holders - are elected. But the fact that most other countries failed to follow that example didn't mean they were less democratic - not every single public position needs to be elected in a democracy, he would say. True enough. But in a parliamentary democracy, it is surely rather essential for the entirety of parliament to be elected.

You can read my new article on the urgent need for Lords reform here. My (slightly mischievous) starting-point is that Britain could learn a thing or two about democracy from Sark!

Also still available to read is another article I wrote nine months ago about the predicament of the Labour party. I thought for a little while in the autumn that the second 'Brown bounce' might have rendered my central conclusion questionable, but not anymore!

And, by way of contrast...

YouGov have also released the detailed figures from their weekend poll. The Scottish breakdown paints just a slightly different picture from Populus -

Labour 40% (+1)
SNP 25% (-2)
Conservatives 17% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 13% (+3)
Others 5% (+1)

The figures in brackets are the percentage change from the last comparable YouGov poll. I had to ignore the one carried out for Channel 4, because for some reason it didn't specify how much of the 'others' vote in Scotland was for the SNP.

Usual disclaimer - the margins of error for these sub-samples are typically enormous (anything from 7-12%), and even that assumes that the figures were properly weighted, which is often not the case.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Labour tumbles 31 points in latest Populus sub-sample!

The Populus website has finally replaced its riveting 'fabulous sex' survey with the detailed figures from the political poll for the Times, published over a week ago. The breakdown for Scotland provides a textbook example of why sub-samples should always be taken with a heavy dose of salt -

SNP 42% (+14)
Conservatives 20% (+12)
Labour 19% (-31)
Liberal Democrats 15% (+2)
Others 4% (+2)

I have a sneaky feeling these figures have been available somewhere for several days, but I haven't been able to track them down until now.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Variety is the spice of life

James at the Two Doctors blog is unhappy with Nationalist complaints about the "conniving English" preventing Scotland from enjoying the benefits of North Sea oil in the 1970s. The grounds for his annoyance is that oil production has peaked, ie. it's the past, and we should instead be talking about renewables, which are the future.

Of course, James is spectacularly (and probably willfully) missing the point on a number of levels. The SNP - it should go without saying - have said absolutely nothing about "the English" (conniving or otherwise). But they are rightly infuriated by the mindset and actions of so many members of the United Kingdom civil service - who by definition are supposed to act in the best interests of the whole UK, Scotland included. It was they who adopted the them and us colonial attitude - we must prevent 'them' from gaining political autonomy so that 'we' (southern England?) don't lose access to the oil funds. And it was they who consciously embarked on a shameless campaign of deception to achieve this goal.

It may seem an odd thing to say, James, but this actually isn't about the future - it's about the past. You need to understand the past in order to understand how you ended up in your current position, and to learn from that. And I'm seriously confused as to why he thinks it's not possible to take at least take a passing interest in history while still moving forward with a renewable energy programme at the same time. Humans are designed to multi-task - or is James' entire life composed of "wind farms, wind farms, wind farms. No thankyou, mother, I don't want dinner, I must maintain my concentration on wind farms".

Has Cameron thought this one through?

David Cameron says the Conservatives will support a referendum on Scottish independence if there's 'evidence' the public support it. Well, I suspect this is going to be a rather simpler matter than the Tory leader was bargaining for. All we need to do is draw his attention to the legion of polls showing overwhelming support for the principle of a referendum - both from those who support independence, and from those who don't. I take it you'll be backing the referendum bill then, Dave?

New ComRes Scottish sub-sample

In refreshing contrast to most of the other pollsters, ComRes have recently got into the habit of releasing their detailed figures on the same night the poll is published. Here is the Scottish breakdown -

Labour 38% (+10)
SNP 24% (-8)
Liberal Democrats 17% (+2)
Conservatives 9% (-12)
Others 11% (+8)

A disappointing showing for the SNP - indeed it's their lowest percentage share in any sub-sample for several weeks. It's particularly surprising given that the UK-wide figures are disastrous for Labour -

Conservatives 41% (-2)
Labour 25% (-7)
Liberal Democrats 22% (+6)
Others 12% (-)

As always, bear in mind that the margin of error is much, much larger for sub-samples than for full-scale Scottish polls and that may account for much of the seemingly bizarre fluctuations. It's a particular problem with ComRes, who typically have a Scottish sample of just 60 or so - in the latest poll the figure is 56.